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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

deer-in-the-headlights look

(1990’s | journalese | “consternation,” “visible panic”)

This expression doesn’t really present any difficulty when it comes to meaning or origin (here’s a good account). It sprang from descriptions of Dan Quayle’s performance in encounters with the media, particularly the vice-presidential debate with Lloyd Bentsen, during the 1988 campaign. It turns up only rarely in Google Books or LexisNexis before then, and it’s almost always literal. Certainly the expression rode Quayle’s coattails to popularity. It’s quite evocative, describing the kind of panic that paralyzes, a dumbstruck, flustered, disoriented helplessness resulting from an unexpected threat of some kind (although it often arises from an innocuous question). In Quayle’s honor, it is still often applied to public figures stumped by a question or situation. Perhaps the phrase will get a fresh boost from Levi Johnston’s new book, which takes it as its title.

This phrase may lose its precision over time and start to denote a more general state of fear or uncertainty. I collected this example from Newsday (September 22, 2011), in a profile of a family hit hard by the recession: “This time, his hunt for work hit a brick wall — a tanking economy. She calls it their ‘deer in the headlights’ moment.” Here the phrase clearly means something other than sudden panic caused by an unforeseen crisis. It’s an isolated instance, but I can think of several expressions that have gone from quite specific to very loose (to name three that I’ve covered, “learning curve,” “narrative,” and “ramp up“). After twenty years and counting of regular use, “deer in the headlights” may be ripe for the same treatment.

Cars and deer have coexisted for a long time, but this phrase and its variants effectively didn’t exist before 1988. I wonder if that’s partly because we encounter deer while driving at night more often than we used to. I would not deny that Quayle’s weakness as a speaker was the prime mover, but I suspect this is a word, like “road rage,” that we hear more now because it alludes to a more common occurrence. For the last sixty years, all over the country, we have been carving housing developments out of woodlands. Deer do best living on the edges of woods, where they have easy access to food and cover, so every new house backing on a woodlot, or every new development surrounded by woods, creates more deer habitat. More deer, more cars, more roads — couldn’t that add up to more people experiencing deer in the headlights firsthand?


(1990’s | computerese | “year 2000″)

If you are under eighteen, you probably don’t remember the Y2K crisis, or millennium bug, at least not very well. You started hearing “Y2K” in the mid-1990’s, and it became resoundingly commonplace within a year or two. It was all about how computers interpreted dates and whether “00″ would be understood as 1900 or 2000. There was nothing technically challenging about it; even people who hyperventilate around computers could grasp the problem. And it wasn’t technically difficult to fix, for the most part — the hard part was finding enough programmers to correct all those millions of lines of code. But cascading choruses of experts issued wave after wave of solemn warnings, and we all remained at least a little nervous as 1999 wound down, wondering how bad it would be. It wasn’t bad, probably because, as my brother-in-law the computer maven pointed out, the industry recognized and sized up the problem well in advance and mobilized the necessary resources to fix it. But if you’re one of those people who think the system never really works, you can say the whole thing was a put-up job — a manufactured crisis that never posed any real threat.

Now “Y2K” normally refers to the consequences of two-digit date entry and the efforts to head them off, rather than being simply an abbreviation for the portentous “year 2000.” It hasn’t shown any signs of becoming a synonym for “overhyped problem” or “fizzle,” and my guess is that if hasn’t by now it probably won’t. I’ve seen it used to refer simply to the calendar year, but that is less common and not very stylish.

K, M, or G? My girlfriend pointed out that if a science fiction writer had dreamed up the millennium bug scenario in the sixties, she would have called it “Y2M” rather than “Y2K.” “M” was once a quick way to say one thousand (notice how our Roman numerals have gotten simpler in the last decade?); “G” (for “grand”) was used specifically for money — 5 G’s meant $5,000 — and there’s still a candy bar called “100 Grand,” I think (formerly “$100,000 Bar”). (While I’m on the subject, you could also say “five large,” but that came later.) Now “K” seems to have become the abbreviation of choice, perhaps because of the slow, grudging rise of the metric system and its kilo-thises and kilo-thats. You may like 5K runs, or maybe you’d prefer five kilos of cocaine, but either way, you wind up with “K.”


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